Kobe Bryant had a quick response for reporters when asked what L.A. missed most about Pau Gasol early in the 2009-10 season: “He’s one of the top players in the world.”
Top 15, yup. Top 10, maybe? Either way, he’s really good at basketball.
In an impressive 2008-09 campaign, Gasol earned third-team All-NBA honors, was the second-best player on the NBA champs and finally the MVP of the European Championships (definitely Top something).
But it’s not like the Lakers were bad with the Spaniard sidelined since October 13, missing the team’s first 11 regular season games while healing fully from a hamstring strain. L.A. occasionally looked terrific (e.g. vs. Phoenix) and sometimes the opposite of good (e.g. at Denver), but generally just found different ways to win eight times in 11 chances despite the proverbial target on the purple and gold jersey.
It ended up taking just over five weeks – 36 days to be exact – before Gasol made his season debut, on Thursday at STAPLES Center against the Chicago Bulls.
It took about 36 seconds for Gasol to remind us what we were missing.
In his opening six-minute run with the starters, Gasol sank 4-of-5 shots from the field and two free throws for 10 points, grabbed four rebounds and ran the floor with no discernible hesitation.
That was just the start.
Prior to the game, Phil Jackson said he would be very happy if Gasol lasted 25 minute, but the seven-footer looked so good, Jackson left him on the floor for 35 minutes*. Gasol rewarded his coach with 24 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and a block on a typically efficient 9-of-15 (60 percent) from the field and 6-of-6 from the line.
*Another reason – Andrew Bynum jammed his right ankle in the third quarter, but does not expect to miss any time. He will practice on Saturday and play against OKC on Sunday.
Bryant, who just missed a triple-double with 21 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, couldn’t have been happier to have his friend back in the fold.
“Having Pau back is huge,” said Kobe. “The game is so easy for him. It’s not like he’s in Memphis where he’s getting double- and triple-teamed. We spread the floor out for him extremely well and give him the ball in positions where he can be effective quickly, and with his talent, with this squad, it’s lights out for him.”
“He’s incredible,” added Lamar Odom, who went back to being arguably the league’s best bench player with Gasol’s return. “Incredible scorer, incredible touch, his size. The pressure he puts on the defense is incredible.”
Emphatic praise that at least the home crowd could agree with after gleefully cheering the return (standing ovation style) of so much basketball skill to the defending champs. Gasol, meanwhile, was simply glad to be out of his dress clothes.
“I’m just glad I could be out there,” he said. “I had a lot of fun playing again, playing with my teammates. We have such a great team that it’s a pleasure.”
Gasol explained that he wasn’t expecting to be as effective as he was, simply playing his game (it’s not that easy for everybody…). His conditioning, of course, wasn’t where he’d like it to be.
“I was looking forward to the first time out and was glad it was a nationally televised game because the (time outs) were a little longer,” he conceded.
Yet Gasol scored on put-backs, lefty hooks, jumpers and fastbreak layups. He cleared defensive boards, filled the paint defensively and helped off his man as the Bulls struggled to get anything going inside, getting just 40 points in the paint for the game to 60 for L.A. In fairness, Gasol had a major matchup edge with 6-9 rookie Taj Gibson trying to guard him, but then again, Gasol almost always has an edge on opposing NBA power forwards.
“He’s really good,” said Jordan Farmar, glad to have yet another seven-foot option to feed. “Everybody knows it. He was kind of hesitant to do too much, but he did a great job. His touch is right there. He just has to get his wind back.”
Looking to help him out with that wind, Jackson said he’d hold practice on Saturday, one he’ll often cancel prior to another game on Sunday.
Nonetheless, how many players in the world could put up 24 and 13 just in the flow of their first game in a month and a half?
Ten, yup. Fifteen, maybe?
0 Shots missed by Derek Fisher, who made all five of his attempts, including two three-pointers.
6 Lakers players in double figures on the night: Pau Gasol (24); Kobe Bryant (21); Ron Artest (15); Fisher (12); Andrew Bynum (11) and Lamar Odom (11).
7 Offensive rebounds for Gasol, half of L.A.’s 14. Joakim Noah, the league’s leading rebounder, grabbed five of Chicago’s 10 offensive window cleans.
8 Assists for Bryant to lead both teams. He added nine rebounds, second only to Gasol’s 13 on the Lakers and Noah’s 15 for Chicago.
24 L.A.’s biggest lead of the game, coming early in the fourth quarter on Jordan Farmar’s pull-up jumper.
60 Lakers points in the paint, a 20-point edge on the Bulls (40).